Josephine Herrick

Visionary Photographer, Feminist,
& Philanthropic Leader

Like many young people around the world today, Josephine Herrick was ambitious: she wanted to develop her talents and engage in the world in a meaningful way. While she came from a prominent family of social, political and financial means, she was also sought out role models who opened doors to leadership experience. Ultimately, by combining her passion for photography and her desire to serve, she found her life’s calling and made a significant contribution to society: enhancing the lives of more than 100,000 Americans. The nonprofit she started, recently renamed in her honor, continues the work she began in 1941, serving those in need of self-expression and an opportunity to connect with the world.

Josephine Herrick (1897-1972) graduated from high school at the beginning of WWI and served as a Red Cross nurse in a local Cleveland hospital. After attending Bryn Mawr, a women’s College, she furthered her interest in photography at the Clarence H. White School of Photography in New York City. It was here that she met the great mid-century photographers and was taught to consider photography as not simply a tool to document the world but as an art form: photographs could be manipulated to suit the photographer. She entered her work in shows and in 1927, won first place at the Cleveland Museum of Art for a photo titled “Yes,” a title that reflects her positive attitude toward the world. In 1928, Herrick opened a portrait studio with her friend Princess Braganza on 63rd street in Manhattan and continued to photograph portraits of children, debutantes, estates, gardens, and to take photographic trips abroad.

But like all Americans, Herrick’s life changed completely with the December 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor. She became a lead instructor at the War Service Photography, training photographers to document news events and educate the public on blackouts. She also organized a booth at the local canteen to photograph young men going off to war, and sent the photos with a personal note to their loved ones in an effort to keep families connected.

When wounded soldiers began returning to NY hospitals, Dr. Howard Rusk of the Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine approached Herrick about using photography as a tool for healing. This challenge required a heroic effort to organize temporary dark rooms, photographic equipment and chemicals in the hospital setting. She trained female colleagues to work with her and started Volunteer Service Photographers, complete with uniforms and badges, creating darkrooms out of beds and sheets, and pushing equipment on rollers from room to room.

Like Margaret Bourke-White who was known for her daring war photography, Herrick was tapped to apply her photographic services to the Manhattan Project: a thank you letter from the government found in the archives verifies her involvement in this secretive work. After the war, fifty VSP programs sprung up around the country with annual contests, exhibits and award dinners, and the organization gained an impressive list of supporters over the decades, including Bourke-White, Ansel Adams, Edward Steichen and Irving Penn.